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An essay by Robert Lynd


Title:     Stupidity
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

"Surely honest men may thank God they belong to 'the Stupid Party'!"--The Spectator, March 28, 1914.

It is a terrible thing to boast of stupidity, even in irony. It is a still more terrible thing to associate stupidity with honesty. There is a good deal to be said in favour of honesty, but stupidity in the garb of honesty is the merest masquerader. There was once a member of a local body whom I heard praised in the words: "He's the only honest man in the Corporation, and that is because he is too stupid to be anything else." I doubt if predestined honesty of this sort is entitled to a statue. It has its public uses, no doubt, as an occasional stumbling-block to those who traffic both in their own and other people's virtue. Here, at least, is virtue that cannot be bought at a crisis. On the other hand, it does not withstand the temptations of gold a bit more sturdily than it withstands the appeals of reason. It will not move either for a thousand pounds or for the Archangel Gabriel. It bars the way to Heaven and the road to Hell impartially. It has the unbudgeableness of the ass rather than the adaptability which enables human beings to survive on this wrinkled planet. Even so, one may admit a sneaking respect and affection for honest stupid people in private life. It is when they feel called upon to devote their combined honesty and stupidity to public affairs that one begins to tremble and to wonder whether, after all, an honest fool or a clever rogue is likely to do better service to the State. Oscar Wilde once said it was well that good people did not live to see the evil results of their goodness and that wicked people did not live to see the good results of their wickedness. This is true, perhaps, no matter how cunning one may be in one's virtue or how provident in one's vices. But it is especially true of that blind and bigoted honesty which cannot see farther than its nose. I know a town where the lamplighter twenty years ago was an honest old man of the blind and bigoted type. It was his duty to go out and light the lamps of the little town on every night when there was no moon. One month, however, it was noticed that all the lamps were alight while the moon was blazing, and that when the moon was dark the lamps were dark too. The old man was called before the town committee to account for his disobedience to orders. Instead of apologising, however, he firmly insisted that he had done his duty, and produced a calendar to prove that there was no moon on the nights on which everybody had seen it shining, and that it might have reasonably been expected to shine on the nights on which it was obscured. He was asked why he did not trust his eyes, but he said that he always went by the calendar, and he would not yield an inch of his position till someone took the calendar from him and noticed that it was not even a current one, but a calendar of the previous year. There, I think, is a dramatisation of a very common form of honesty. It is as common among Cabinet Ministers and Churchmen as among aged lamplighters. It expresses itself in adherence not only to antiquated Mother Seigel calendars but to constitutions and confessions of faith that have lost their meaning. Whether this can justly be called honesty at all is a question with something to be said on both sides. It is certainly stupidity of the very best quality.

One of the reasons why one rather disbelieves in reverencing stupidity is that it is not always as honest as it looks. It is often an armour instinctively, if not deliberately, put on by comfortable people. This kind of stupidity has sometimes been attributed to excessive eating and drinking, as when Holinshed wrote of the sixteenth-century Scots that "they far exceed us in overmuch and distemperate gormandise, and so engross their bodies that diverse of them do oft become unapt to any other purpose than to spend their times in large tabling and belly cheer." But I have known gluttons who have yet had all their wits about them and ladies who could hardly get through the wing of a chicken and were nevertheless as stupid as a prize cat blinking beside the fire. There is more in it than the stomach. Stupidity of the kind I mean is really an ingeniously built castle with moat and drawbridge to guard against the entrance of the facts of life--at least, of the disagreeable facts of life. It is by a perfect network of castles of this kind that so many feudal privileges have been kept alive generations after anyone defends the idea of feudalism. Against stupidity, it has been said, the gods themselves fight in vain, and it is hardly to be wondered at that democracy also falls back from the impassive walls of those old castles like a broken tide. It is only fair to say, however, that again and again different noble inmates--how suggestive a word--of the castles have refused to shelter themselves behind the drawbridge of stupidity and have even offered to lead the people in an assault on castles in general. It is then usually discovered that the people, too, have their dear retreat of stupidity to which they fly on the first hint of a raid upon Utopia. The stupidity of the underfed is an even more desperate thing than the stupidity of the overfed, and, when a castellan offers his sword to their cause, they merely look at each other and ask darkly: "What's he going to get out of it?" It is the popular stupidity which led Mr Shaw the other day to observe that he had more hope of converting a millionaire than a millionaire's chauffeur to Socialism. Certainly it is the stupid in the back streets who make the stupid in the castles secure. The latter see in the former, indeed, not only their first line of defence, but their justification. They see their justification, however, in everything and everybody. They wrap themselves up in little comforting thoughts that the poor do not feel things as the respectable do. I have heard a comfortable artist, for instance, in winter, arguing that there was no need to pity a blind beggar shivering at a street-corner. "Each of us is kept warm," he declared, "by a little stove in his stomach, and you would be surprised to know how little it takes to keep a man like that's stove alight. You see, he's been training himself all his life to do with very little food and very little clothing and to sit out in all kinds of weather. A fall in the temperature that would paralyse you or me would affect him hardly more than a fall in the price of champagne. You see, he's learned to do without things." There was almost a note of envy in his voice for the man who had learned to do without things--without soap, and meat, and blankets, and clothes-brushes, and servants, and fires, and sunshine. That seems to be one of the favourite hypocrisies of the stupid, the pretence of envying the poor. I have seen a merchant grow suddenly eloquent as he described the happy lot of the working-man, who had nothing to do but draw his wages, and compared it with the anxious life of the employer, who had all the cares and responsibilities of the business on his shoulders. The rich never feel so good as when they are speaking of their possessions as responsibilities. Hear a mistress set forth the advantages of the life of a servant-girl--how she not only gets higher wages than servants ever got before, but think of the food, and no rent to pay! She even becomes mawkish over the fortune of a girl who is too poor to be called upon to pay rates and taxes. Alas, these idylls of the kitchen are all written in the drawing-room. If a servant's life were all a matter of freedom from rent and rates and taxes and the worries of making both ends meet on a thousand a year, the idylls would be apt enough; but it is just possible that even to make both ends meet on twenty-five pounds a year may have its own difficulties. Certainly one has a right to suspect these ladies who glorify the life of the cook and the parlour-maid. I will refuse to believe in them till I hear that one of them has run away from her husband to take one of those sinecures advertised in the domestic service columns of the Morning Post. But, perhaps, their sense of duty is too strong to allow them to fly from their responsibilities in that way.

Stupidity might be defined as resignation to other people's misfortunes. Alternatively, it is a way of regarding comforts as responsibilities and of getting out of one's uncomfortable responsibilities altogether. There is no greater enemy of change. For, granted enough stupidity, it is easy to believe that Hell itself is Heaven. It is the stupidity of the rich, rather than deliberate heartlessness, that permits so many of them to live cheerfully on ill-paid labour and slum rents. Fortunately the cheerful dullness of rich people is rarer than it was a century ago. Then it was reinforced by political economy which regarded transactions in human beings in much the same light as transactions in pounds of tea. Our first awakening to the right of other people to live happened just before we gave up cannibalism. The second happened just before we gave up slavery. The third will happen just before we give up capitalism. Obviously, it is only our stupidity which enables us to go on putting the rights of Tom, Dick, and Harry before the rights of the race. It is only our stupidity which makes us believe that, while it is right that superfluous wealth should be taxed a shilling in the pound for the good of all, it would be robbery to tax it ten shillings in the pound for the good of all. The first statesman who levied the first tax thereby announced the dual ownership of property between the citizen and the State. He vindicated the right of the State, representing the common good, as against the individual, representing only his private good, to a first share in property. The income-tax stands for exactly the same principle in regard to State rights as would the nationalisation of the land or the railways. As we grow less stupid, we shall gradually awake to the fact that there is no right to food and shelter and State benevolence that we possess which our neighbours ought not also in justice to possess. We shall gradually understand, for instance, that it is not worth while that a thousand children should be brought up in the gutters of misery in order that a few dozen young gentlemen may sup on plovers' eggs. It has already dawned upon us that, if pensions are good for field-marshals, they cannot be so very bad for linen-lappers. Perhaps we shall yet come to see that a pension is a very good thing to begin life with as well as to end life with. In the meantime, most of us are either too comfortable or too miserable to think about such things. Our stupidity, at least, keeps conscience or revolution from destroying the peace of our meals.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Stupidity